This is the most common advice I give in the workshop, so I thought I'd make a post about it. Much like the Dialogue Theories post, all of this advice probably started somewhere else and then went through my brain and came out like this. I'd love to give credit where credit is due. I can't.
When a scene begins, I need three things to happen for me to be immersed in it. I need there to be a place (setting), people (characters), and then I need those people to move around in that place (action).
The things that are around people can define them as easily as any physical attribute (tattoos, sneers, smiles, crazy eyes, etc.) People collect things that show who they are and who they want to be. Using the setting to show this is very effective.
Scary people might have things in their house like an old picture of a crazy aunt who died in an asylum, dead flowers, clown figurines, doll parts at random places around the house, or a rusty shotgun with a shiny new trigger on it (those are a bit cliché, but you see where I'm going I think).
Happy people might have bright colored furniture, a messy house that seems brightly chaotic, children's books (although that would work for a creepy person, too).
Beside establishing some characteristics of the people around the objects in the room, the room (setting) also gives us atmosphere. The things in the room create atmosphere by the way the writer describes them.
A Gothic table can be an alter, a gathering place for a huge family, or an imposing invitation to sit and eat where the narrator feels uncomfortable drinking coffee.
So show the setting. Find the iconic items in the room that really define the room and also the person who owns the room. The things your protagonist notices in the room will also help define the protagonist's personality and agenda. If your protagonist is fixated on an abstract painting and keeps seeing it as sexual, we'll know what's on his/her mind. If that protagonist sees the same picture and sees something frightening, we'll know that he/she is filled with fear. If he/she sees sex and is scared at the same time, even better.
Setting tip: Avoid pop-ins
In video games, pop-ins are pieces of the setting that suddenly appear because there's not enough memory to load the objects and textures before they are close. In stories, pop-ins are where there is suddenly a couch to sit down on even though we've already been shown the room and there was no couch mentioned before. A pop-in is a character that hasn't been mentioned as being in the room until a page into the story when all of a sudden they get a line of dialogue that shows that they've been there the whole time.
Pop-ins jar a reader (well, me) out of a story because I want to go back and find out if I missed that character being mentioned and because the picture I had in my head of the room has suddenly changed without reason.
This is very simple. Show me who is in the room. Find a few details that highlight their personality or their appearance (kindly eyes, a suit and tie at a rock concert, a big nose, one elf-ear (half-elf), etc.) As the story goes on, more of these things can be revealed, but I need some of it upfront every time the setting changes so that I know who is there and what they look like now. Once a character's appearance is established, future scenes and chapters don't have to go into another detailed description of their face, but I need to be reminded of them (if he had the big nose, mention it again in a funny way)
And remember, the details that you pick can also have double meanings. The guy with the big nose might be nosey. The woman with the elf-ear might be a trickster. Etc. I wouldn't overuse this, because it's easy to get carried away with it.
Now is the part that probably already is in the story. The action. This means moving around the room, talking, throwing a fit. Anything physical.
If the characters don't move around the setting and interact with it, then there is nothing happening.
The action is the greatest part of the story and the best time to put in the details of setting and character. Between lines of dialogue, show me the room. Beware of pop-ins, though... Don't have them go to a chair that hasn't been shown yet. Between lines of dialogue is a really great chance to establish the setting and atmosphere by having the things they talk about be highlighted or contradicted by the setting. If they are talking about the death of a grandmother while playing with a baby, it will have a different impact than if they are having the same conversation while flipping through a JC Penny's catalog and picking out summer shoes.
And don't forget to use gestures and attribution to punctuate the dialogue (see Chuck Palahniuk's essay #13).
That's SCA. Anyone have more tips?
You do point out the lack of setting in critiques!
I think it all comes down to personal choice but I don't go for setting at all. It's never really that important to me. I was thinking about this on the train home from work last week. If I saw a couple in the carriage, who looked to me as if they were in the process of breaking up, that is all I'd be interested in. I wouldn't care if it was a locomotive we were in or a modern Bullet Train. I wouldn't care if through the window I could see an active volcano spewing lava. I'd only be interested in those two people and wouldn't mention the backdrop.
To me, setting often kills the story.
Those two examples of setting would highlight the drama of the breakup for me. Like Zinn said, "You can't be neutral on a moving train." So, the type of train would be a great detail, and a volcano creates an image of a world breaking apart and of destruction and upheavel.
The story would be the break-up, of course, but those background images and setting seems almost to tell the same story.
I see too much of people describing the colour and texture of curtains or the type of house they're in or what kind of breed the dog is. It kills me. I honestly can't take it in as information. I imagine the author going to extraordinary lengths to paint a detailed picture and it's totally wasted on me. A lot of people dig it - no doubt about that - and it adds considerably to their reading experience, but I'm not one of them.
Too much can be too much. I'm with you there, Bruno. If the setting doesn't highlight the action and characters, then it's usually unnecessary, except that I need to see the room people are in for me to be immersed in the story.
So restraint is very important. It's a theory of writing, not a rule. It's not always so. It may be so, but it's not always so.
But the two examples you gave with the break-up story really do fit the theme and atmosphere of the characters and action (moving train = going forward in life, volcano = destruction of what is/has been).
Well, when writers do it clumsily - giving either a wanted-poster description or tourist-attraction overview - it can certainly slow down the story and bore the reader. The job of the writer is to describe (economically) those settings and character traits that add to the story. That either define the character or reflect the theme. It doesn't have to be a lot. But saying they swayed along to the rhythm of the locomotive or talked above the thrum of the bullet train will add depth to the story and help ground the reader in the story. Like an establishing shot in a movie.
What I struggle with is finding character descriptions that are both interesting and really add to the character. I never say: he was 6'4" tall with steel-blue eyes (unless there's a compelling reason for the story to have that information - or I'm doing a comedy). But if his height is important because it represents how he feels above (superior) to everyone else, then the writer needs to work that in without giving a boring list of fact descriptions.
Ah, but those were extreme examples to illustrate my point of being a "not into setting" type of guy.
If they skewed the results of this experiment then I apologise.
We know what we're talking about: a girl sitting on a chair; in front of her is a man with a knife.
Do we need to know that she's sitting on an antique mahogany dining chair which dates from 1880? Do we need to know it's made in the Chippendale style, with a shaped top rail, pierced central splat, brown leather covered drop in seat which stands on slender cabriole legs with a ball and claw foot?
Or do we need to know what the guy with the knife is about to do?
I'd say the minimum to know in that case is what room they are in. It's a complete different story if they are in a dirty basement than if they are in a theater on the stage. You might not reveal it all at once, giving hints and piece interspersed with the dialogue and motion, but the setting is going to come into play at some point.
I'm not saying that you should describe the chair. That's a bit extreme and when writers do that, I skim down to the next line of dialogue or the next body movement.
In that particular example, I'm thinking you should tell about the lighting. A sigle light hanging from the ceiling or a stage light shining on them? And then how the light hits the knife and how it casts shadows. The shadow of the chair might make for an interesting image.
I sympathize, Bruno.
I think what Howie's saying is that description should be used to further immerse the reader in a story, to heighten drama or underline themes, which I agree with. If it takes away from these, it should be removed, which I also agree with.
It comes down to personal preference. There's no right or wrong.
I'd agree with stating the basic place. In the first example I gave I'd have started the story with "I was on the train coming home from work." What I'm saying is that I wouldn't then have gone into great detail about what kind of train it was or what was going on outside the window. I'd have focused all my energies on the couple who were breaking up, what I could overhear, how their facial expressions matched their mood.
Sometimes the room might help define the actual story. Not always though - any type of story could be set in an office: everything from the classic manage a trois drama to a zombie movie.
In the examples given - a theatre stage or a dirty basement - then yes, the setting would most probably have a strong bearing on the type of story we're about to read. Then it comes down to the writer or reader's preference. Some people like detail, as the room/furniture/setting foreshadow what's to come and they add to atmosphere and overall richness of the tale. Other people just see it as clutter and never the twain shall meet.
I wasn't trying to imply a right or wrong. It's just a theory. :)
I'm a detail skimmer when I read, too. If the writer tells me the exact location of everything in a room, then I stop paying attention to it and only note the nouns. couch, tv, coffee table.... got it. 9 out of 10 times, I don't care a bit what those three things look like. One adjective for each and I'm happy (dog-hair covered couch, flatscreen tv, coffe table covered in penthouse magazines).
"I wasn't trying to imply a right or wrong. It's just a theory. :)"
That was actually my attempt at offering an olive branch :)
I love ya, Bruno. And I'm glad we're discussing this.
Ha, ha. Right, that's setting dealt with. Now we move on to "characters" :).
I keep characters out of my work as much as possible.
"The woman with the elf-ear might be a trickster."
Thanks for the dialogue here guys. I like settings. They help me define characters, but both of you have great points. Also landscape sometimes defines characters. Enjoyed reading all this.
I love that elf-ear. You should make sure your 'author's photo' shows it.
I think these are some good theories, though I don't prescribe to them, they'd probably be beneficial notes for a lot of people's writing styles. I think a lot of setting and character description stuff could be left off the page though, a lot of it is more for the writer than the reader. The "pop-in," to me, is just fine and I might even say it's more of what I think should happen, but I won't say that. I'll say that I try to throw descriptions in as close to the place in the story that that information is necessary, so it has a reason for being there and is current enough for the reader to accept this info and move on, and, if written with enough... "spunk" maybe, it has some resonant imagery. Taking a note from King tangentially, a lot of this shit can be filled in from the reader, doubly so regarding characters' physical descriptions, as long as you push them through the story at a fast enough pace for them to be instinctive about these things. Just make sure it's all logical and agrees with the laws of Earthly physics.
"Literary" flash fiction is a genre I see that commonly has little of any of these things, though most of that stuff is prosetry bullshit anyway. I have been playing, though, strictly behind closed writing laboratory doors, with stories without all this character and action business. "Object stories," maybe could describe those. But that's not entirely in the realms of what makes a good story/scene.
I do think you should introduce all your characters, or groups of characters, in a scene as soon as possible. The important thing to remember about action is the orientation of people's bodies, make sure they're not kneeling by the door the entire scene (I'm guilty of this.)
What I disagree with is just down to differing writer's philosophy, though. It works in your writing, Howie. I'd only put that kind of stuff in my writing when thinking of it's absolutely necessary, or when a couple good readers like yourself gets lost somewhere and gives me feedback. I always care more about feedback that comes from a reader's perspective than a writer's one.